Meet the Man Who’s Making Barbie a Hollywood Star

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Ynon Kreiz envisions Mattel as more than a simple toymaker. With a portfolio of brands, including American Girl, Barbie, Fisher-Price, Hot Wheels, Thomas & Friends, and UNO, Kreiz—the company’s chief executive since April 2018—says he’s leveraging Mattel’s intellectual property to grow revenue from film, television, digital gaming and other types of media, not unlike a certain comic book franchise pulled off with its universe of superheroes.

“We look at Marvel as a very good analogy,” says Kreiz. “That is directionally what we believe we can achieve in terms of the strength, appeal and built-in fan base of our franchises.”

And who’s working overtime to help Kreiz with these goals? Barbie. The freakishly long-limbed doll, who celebrates her 63rd birthday in March, will see filming begin this spring on her very own movie: a Greta Gerwig project, starring Margot Robbie as the lead character and Ryan Gosling as Ken. It is the company’s first-ever live-action film.

Mattel has also partnered with Netflix for a Masters of the Universe movie that begins shooting this summer. The two projects add to 12 other films in development and more than 30 TV shows that Mattel already has in production.

Barbie also scored at this year’s Super Bowl, co-starring with Anna Kendrick in an ad for Rocket Mortgage that took top honors in USA Today’s Ad Meter poll.

Even as the toymaker’s top-selling doll does the heavy lifting, Kreiz and the rest of Mattel’s 33,000 employees are no slouches. The company won back a license to make dolls and toys based on the Frozen and Disney Princess franchises earlier this year, after losing it to its top rival, Hasbro, in 2016.

Under Kreiz, Mattel has undergone a difficult restructuring that involved cutting its workforce by more than a third, closing or consolidating factories, and reducing the number of items it manufactures by more than 35%. The three-and-a-half-year effort reduced Mattel’s annual costs by $1.1 billion. Over roughly the same period, the company’s earnings (before interest, taxes and depreciation) rose eight-fold.

All the focus on media notwithstanding, toys remain the core of Kreiz’s long term plan. Indeed, the industry is projected to be a $100 billion business by 2023, and it’s expected to grow through 2025 at more than 5% annually, according to market research group EuroMonitor.

“It’s a resilient industry, a strategic category for retailers,” Kreiz says. “But the opportunity for us is to extend beyond the toy industry into other categories that are actually larger.”

Kreiz spoke with TIME about Mattel’s turnaround, what the pandemic did for the toy business, and why toy prices might increase for years to come.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Mattel is in growth mode after a big turnaround. Was that transformation harder to accomplish during a pandemic?

It was an exceptional quarter for us. We also continued to outpace the industry, in terms of being able to grow market share for the second consecutive year. And in fact, in every measured market the turnaround is complete. This was very much a broad based success in that we’ve achieved [growth] in six of the seven categories where we operate in each of our power brands—Barbie, Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price, and American Girl—and ended the year as the number one toy company in the fourth quarter, globally. It wasn’t just one brand or one region or one category. It was across the board.

How did the pandemic factor into those results? Was it a headwind? Or did it help that people were home and needed things to do, especially kids?

The pandemic did drive some demand for toys, but at the same time, it also introduced challenges in the supply chain. Supply chain challenges with factory closures, some retail closure, especially in Asia. You did have challenges that you had to work through, as well as inflation.

What’s your outlook on the economy in general? Do you feel like we’re pulling out of pandemic mode now? Your chief financial officer said in a recent earnings call that some inflation issues are working themselves out and should be out of the way by 2023.

That’s right. We do expect inflation to moderate in ’23. We expect it also to start moderating in the second half of ’22. Over time we do expect—as we all see around us—the pandemic to become part of our lives. We might not be completely over it, but we learn to live with it. We learn to work through it and find ways to be productive. What we achieved over the last two years, in the thick of the pandemic, is a case in point.

Another big win that you had very recently was winning back the licenses for the Disney Princess and Frozen franchises. How did you do it?

It was a really big win for the company. In the end, it came to trust, really showing the Walt Disney Company that Mattel is a partner of choice that will have the capabilities to develop and manage emerging franchises. And as the global leader in the dolls category, we do have the expertise. It’s the same team that is managing Barbie so successfully that will manage Disney Princess and Frozen.

How does Mattel reach its audience these days in a way that might be different from a decade ago?

Well, [our Super Bowl ad] ended up being the number one Super Bowl ad, according to the USA Today ranking. It really hit a high note. In today’s world, where there’s so much exposure, and children really learn how to engage and consume. You’re dealing with the most sophisticated target audience out there. Whatever you do, you have to do it with a lot of authenticity. It’s a combination of social media, online video, short-form video, and continue to innovate in ways that are not traditional. The way you also reach or engage consumers today is with a very clear brand purpose and cultural relevance.

Can you elaborate on that?

Beyond physical play, which in itself is great, there has to be another reason why you buy our product and why you engage with our product. This is something that is important for parents, caregivers, as well as children. They know that when they buy, when they interact with our product, there is another benefit. It needs to inspire, entertain, or develop children through play.

So, for instance, what would be the greater purpose of Barbie or a Hot Wheels car?

Barbie’s purpose is to inspire the limitless potential in every girl. Hot Wheels’ purpose is to ignite and nurture the spirit that lives in every kid. And likewise, American Girl, for example, is to help girls grow with confidence and develop strong character. Monster High is about diversity and inclusivity, belonging and representation. We try to instill a clear brand purpose that consumers can relate to.

Can you talk about the importance of media products—movies, television, video games—in helping to sell toys?

So, there’s no question that having multiple touchpoints and engaging consumers through different forms of media increases the emotional connection that fans have with our product. But it’s important to say that when it comes to all of these additional verticals—film, television, live events, consumer products, and digital experiences—the way we see these is as an opportunity to grow our business and expand beyond the toy aisles, as opposed to think of them as a marketing strategy. This is really our evolution to become an IP-driven, high performing toy company.

How does that work, exactly?

We’re not saying, “Please make movies and television or episodic content so we can sell more toys.” It’s about, “Make great content that people want to watch.” We know, of course, that in success we will also sell more toys. It’s not that we’re not looking to sell more toys. But the mandate for all these verticals that we are now developing is to develop and grow business verticals that will be successful in and of themselves. Starting the journey as a toy company is great. It gives us a very strong foundation. Toys have very high engagement and emotional connection with consumers. You touch it, you hug it, you go to bed with it, and it’s a source of inspiration and aspiration.

How do you think the role of the CEO is evolving these days, both within the company, as well as the public role? Do you see it changing at all?

Absolutely. Mattel is the fourth company I’ve managed and I do see how the role of a CEO, of a corporate leader, has evolved. Of course, the fundamentals are very much the same. It’s about running a company successfully and doing the right thing by your stakeholders, by your shareholders, by all the relevant constituencies. The role has definitely expanded into corporate citizenship, where a responsible company has to have a purpose that goes beyond its business objectives. In our case, we are looking to contribute to a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and sustainable future. We have a very clear purpose for the company, which is to empower the next generation to explore the wonder of childhood and reach their full potential.

Are there elements of this changing role that are unique to Mattel?

Trust is foundational for every company, but it’s particularly important for us, given our main consumers are children. In some cases, we start the relationship with the parents before the child is born, with Fisher-Price. Developing and cultivating and strengthening that relationship can only be achieved through trust. And, of course, continuing to develop products that stand for quality, safety, and value. These are the three product attributes that we want to associate with our brand. And when you earn consumers’ trust, then you can pursue your business objectives.

Mattel has pledged to use 100% recycled or recyclable plastic by 2030. How is that effort progressing?

We did announce our goal to achieve, just to make sure that you get the definition correctly, 100% percent recyclable or bio-based plastics materials in both product and packaging by 2030. Other important goals are to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions by 50% and achieve zero manufacturing waste by 2030. We have been making steady progress towards those goals. There’s a new campaign, Barbie Loves the Ocean. It’s our first doll made from 99% ocean-bound plastics materials.

Will greener products like these be more expensive? Does making them out of more sustainable materials add to the cost?

Yes, they are more expensive. It’s not that the capabilities are not there, but clearly you want to do it in a commercially viable way. When we, for example, launched the Matchbox Tesla Roadster, our first die-cast vehicle made from 99% recycled materials and certified carbon neutral, which we are starting to sell this year, it is more expensive than the regular model. But we are starting to experiment. We’re starting to try different manufacturing systems and different materials. Obviously, the world is moving in that direction and we would like to do what we can do in our own domain. But we expect that with more scientific research and resources that we and others are putting into it, eventually we will be able to achieve it in a commercially viable way.

We also launched the Mattel PlayBack program, which is a toy take-back campaign where we invite consumers to send us back old Mattel toys that we can recover and reuse materials and use them in future Mattel products.

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